To feel safe and free in public spaces is every citizen’s entitlement. But, in India, this could often be a conflicted terrain when it comes to the role of the State in ensuring this. Two recent issues come together in ways that are important to think about and act on. First, the Union urban development ministry has decided not to provide new buses to states and Union territories that have not been able to show how they have implemented the recommendations made to them regarding the safety of women in the public transport system. Second, the same ministry is seriously concerned about the West Bengal government’s senseless ban on cycles (and other non-motorized vehicles) on many of Calcutta’s streets. Taken together, these two areas of conflict between the Centre and states show how gender, class and attitudes to the environment inform what is dangerously wrong with the civic values of most state governments, making it essential that proactive citizens’ movements are kept robustly alive in the country.
In Calcutta, public buses are a menace not only to the safety of women, but to the lives of every citizen for two reasons. First, because of reckless and callous driving, caused largely by commercial competitiveness. Second, most buses and other state-owned vehicles flout air-pollution norms, making the city’s air notoriously carcinogenic, apart from being damaging in various other ways to health. Besides, why should these norms of safety and health be applicable only to the cities? Is rural India not equally entitled to safe and environmentally-friendly public transport systems? The ban on cycles becomes yet another example of the government’s sheer ignorance of, and insensitivity to, the means of livelihood and mobility of a vast section of the unorganized and underprivileged population. The lack of an inclusive and well-informed civic vision in the city’s keepers that such a move betrays is shocking and sad.